There are lots of books on productivity around, and lots of articles suggesting that we are too easily distracted, one of the major impediments to being productive. Ironically, many of these articles are click-bait on Facebook or LinkedIn, precisely the networking tools that feed our temptation to distraction!
Cal Newport’s book Deep Work does not contain much that is new, but it does collate some really helpful tips, backs them up with research and presents them alongside real-life examples.
Newport suggests four practices to achieve deep work:
Rule #1: Work Deeply (see some of the ideas below)
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom (imagination, play, day dreaming)
Rule #3: Quit Social Media (or schedule social network tools)
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows (wipe out activities that waste time, don’t work too late, become hard to reach)
I decided to test Newport’s theories by employing his tactics in the writing of this book review. So I drove to a remote beach with limited connectivity. I read deeply. I had some exercise in the middle. I took notes while reading, and then I wrote this review. All this was achieved in two and a half hours.
Maybe this is an indication of the success of his book, or my interest in the area, or the fact that the beach was closed due to rough seas, or the general wisdom of his writing. Here is my perspective on what is valuable, and some biblical perspectives.
- Deep work is a spiritual discipline. Newport defines deep work as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” From a Christian perspective, I would put a question mark against the implied elitism of his “professional” category. Also, more importantly, I would add that what turns discipline into “spiritual” discipline is the presence and power of the Spirit, enabling and motivating us to work “with all [our] heart,” and consecrating our work as something done “for the Lord” (Col 3:23). But his basic claim about the importance of whole-hearted, undistracted concentration seems to me to be a really important one.
- We are becoming addicted to distraction and this is shrinking our cognitive and creative abilities. Neurological research demonstrates the plasticity of the brain, and we have trained our brains to react to various stimuli, noticeably the various sounds our phones make when we receive a message, a comment, a like, an email… I found encouragement in this book’s suggestion that we can train our brains to be able to resist distraction and focus deeply. This will enhance not just our working, but also our ability to relate and our capacity for prayer.
- The most effective way to work deeply and avoid distraction is to schedule our time. This is a technique I learnt from Matt Perman in What’s Best Next. Our time is a precious commodity (cf. Col 4:5), and we need to schedule it to make most effective use of it. That includes scheduling big chunks of distraction-free time for deep working; and little chunks of time for emails, or networking tools (Facebook etc). We need to make sure that we schedule our personal as well as our work time, and we leave gaps in for unexpected surprises, such as sickness, or unplanned opportunities.
- Part of training our brains for deep work involves focused biblical study. Newport uses the example of daily Hebrew recitation in a synagogue, but it is clear that focused Bible reading and memorisation, together with meditation, prayer and praise, richly enhances our cognitive skills, as well as our relationship with God.
- We need to simplify our lives. We worry about stuff all the time, which distracts us. So, get rid of the stuff! Reduce the number of activities, possessions, networking tools, gadgets and entertainments that occupy your mind, time and money. Become more focused.
- We can be more strategic. One of the quotes I love from the book is that “busyness is not a proxy for productivity”. True as that is, it can also be said that productivity is not a proxy for purposefulness. In working out what to focus our time on we need to think carefully about what activities and tools positively impact our ability to be (purposefully) productive in terms of our working, our personal life and our influence for God (cf. Rom 12:1–2). Without a clear grasp of what is good and what our lives are for, our “productivity” can be just as pointless as our “busyness”!
My main criticism of Newport’s book would be that it is very individual-focused and is motivated by success factors such as financial reward which do not necessarily motivate Christians. Newport is an academic in the information technology sector, so social factors do not rate highly in his analysis. He also has a privileged ability to have flexibility and negotiate his work projects and timing which most of us ordinary workers lack. Maybe there are times and places when our hospitality and interruptability are as important to the way we serve God and people as our intense, focused, productive work.
I do still think, however, that there is a good biblical basis for both the wisdom of disciplining our lives to make room for the sort of “deep work” Newport is suggesting, and (to go beyond what he says) the importance of orienting our work, and all of our lives, toward the pleasures and purposes of God. Both of these things can be seen in the life of Jesus and the singlemindedness with which he focused on the “work” that his Father had given him to do:
- He was focused and attentive to others (for example, his initiative in extended conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4:7–42)
- He took time out to meditate, think and pray (Matthew 26:36; Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16, 6:12)
- He was clear on his goals (Luke 4:16–21; Mark 8:31, 34–38)
- When he was overwhelmed by the demands of others he withdrew to pray (Luke 5:16)
- He was not easily distracted from his tasks by the power plays of his followers, the opposition of the religious authorities, the emotional concerns of others, or the demands of those wanting his services (for example, the request of James and John in Mark 10:35–45)
- He slept when he was tired (Matthew 8:24)
- He was strategic in choosing those he worked with, and the instructions he gave (see the calling of the disciples, and the special experiences he gave to Peter, James and John e.g. Matthew 17:1–13)
- He did all he did to the glory of God (for example, his healing of Lazarus in John 11, especially verses 4 and 40–42).